Monday, March 29, 2010

FACING A GRILLING


 I am writing this at 5:48 a.m. about a subject that at this time on Tuesday would have me standing before a large restaurant grill flipping pancake no. 97 or French toast no. 60. I am, on the second day of the workweek, the volunteer cook in a 25-year-old breakfast program in Spring Valley, N.Y.

Others, like Al Witt, my former boss at The Journal-News, where I worked for pay for 42 years, and George Chalsen, a 50-year printer there, preceded me as cook. The “soup kitchen,” operated as the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program using the good will and facilities of the United Church in Spring Valley, now serves three times as many homeless and poor men and women as it did just three years ago. I am only the Tuesday cook and can report just that day’s figures – about 150-170 people served.

My newspaper jobs as copyboy, photographer, writer, editor, essayist and editorial page chief were arrived at in hands-on learning in the old style once available at thriving newspapers. You watched others work, asked some questions, tried your hand and more often than not, the Horatio Alger effect took place and you moved up the ladder. Such hands-on training provided new blood to carry the torch of an honored profession. It worked well, as it did in other professions, as many acquired the “college degree” of job experience.

Now, in volunteering as a cook, I have been fortunate to continue the hands-on training from my newspaper time, even with two of the same people – Al and George, whose grill technique – not running it too hot that it smokes; avoiding water/oil fires; mixing the right batter and French toast dip; the art of flipping itself; and dividing your time so that  while you work the grill, you also watch the soup, make grits, boil hot water for a variety of tasks, monitor two ovens full of sausage, keep the Bunn  coffee maker in its 10-cup cycle for 100-plus cups and take 15-second breaks to bring the food to the cafeteria.

Al and George did it all and well. George was particularly organized and Al offered jokes along with perfectly shaped pancakes. I cannot duplicate their methods, just as I could not at The Journal-News. But I have acquired experience through hands-on training, and I imagine both Al and George would give me a passing grade.
    
 What a privilege in life to have spent 50 years learning on the job(s).




Monday, March 22, 2010

FRIENDS, IN SNAPSHOT



      It was a walk you see on any road, in any town, anywhere in the world -- two young fellows (they could be girls) bouncing along in spurting growth, in gangly gait, jabbering away.

What could be so important to discuss at age 14? Well, anything and everything since age and needs and concerns and wishes and dreams and worries and warts are relative to age.

I saw just the backs of the two young ones as they ambled down Western Highway, the old pre-Revolution kings road in Blauvelt, N.Y., where I live. I did not need to see their faces, for once those two were Mark Broat and I in nearby Hillcrest, 1958. Our conversation then was probably what the Western Highway boys were addressing: school, girls, other people, sports, teachers, nothings and everything.

For a moment, I was back with Mark, for the universality of friends walking is obvious. It was reassuring, too, since while each ruling generation seems to condemn the newer ones for going to hell in a handbasket, somehow the newest quickly becomes the oldest -- surviving, succeeding, making mistakes and producing more youngsters who take walks together as friends on any road, anywhere.

So fleeting is time that I instantly recall those 1958-era walks as if I had just walked into my house at 25 Karnell Street after a one-mile trip with Mark to downtown Spring Valley. No aches and pains then. No taxes to worry about. No concerns over politics. No angst over trials and tribulations in family or among friends. A rather protected world, fortunately, yet a world that not every 14-year-old shares, though even there, friendship blossoms.

My two sons, Arthur 4th and Andrew Edward, had their own walks with friends and now their children will, too. So will youngsters you know. Such is life. Such was the moment yesterday on a sidewalk off Western Highway.

Monday, March 15, 2010

THE GREAT WHITE WALL



 Calling President Obama. Anyone in?

It seems that no matter who becomes the nation’s chief executive, even if it’s a popular stumper like Obama, the cadre of advisers, the moneyed interests that will fund the next campaign, the congressional people in the know and any others with access keep us from ever again seeing the candidate we choose.

What this does in modern America, where even visiting the White House as an ordinary citizen requires prior security vetting, is to keep the people from the powerful head of state of a democracy, and, so, from moderate views, from common sense approaches to what are major problems in the economy, health care, defense, quality of life, immigration and education.

Look at the health-care issue. Many suggestions, carefully drawn, some already in practice, have been made by regular citizens who can’t get an ear at the White House. At least that is what appears to be happening.

Candidate Obama was soundly elected on populist views, appealing to moderates in both parties, after the failing government of decades brought us no solutions and put us into debt for our troubles. Democrats and Republicans have been to blame.

John McCain, the GOP maverick, also spoke to populist, moderate views since they are the heart and soul of America,  and he would have been elected had not voters really counted on the “change” that the winner forcefully and articulately promised.

McCain, back in his longtime Senate seat, returns to Peck’s bad boy image, though that is now tempered by his years and, of course, the lobbyists who these days really seem to run government. Yet count on him to offer the same views he did on the election trail. Not so Obama. He’s in the White House now.

It seems the only time the man can take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and be populist again is when he runs away from Washington and stumps somewhere. Then he is candidate Obama anew. People ask him questions, and he responds. His views, modified by the reality of the office and the nation, still seem moderate.

But put him on Air Force One and then Marine One and secure the president in the White House, and no ordinary citizen gets to ask anything, except through scripted means. We really don't know what he is thinking.

George Bush would cite a letter from a citizen. So did the Clinton and Reagan administrations, as if the solitary missive pulled from many thousands was proof that, golly, gee whiz, the folks in the White House are just like we people out there in America.

Well, they are not. The office requires dignity, yes, but it does not necessitate distance. Until modern presidents open their ears to ordinary Sue and Joe, all the chief executives will hear is what he or she is told by vested interest. The pulse of the people will not be felt.

Monday, March 8, 2010

ONCE, IN THE COUNTRY


     VIOLA, N.Y. – Almost 50 years ago, in a time that could be today if progress had not marched, the American Pussy Willow was predominant as a first sign of spring along College Road, then newly named from Viola Road for the small two-year school that began in 1959.

Rockland Community College would become one of the largest of its kind, taking land from old farms and former county almshouse property, as needed. In less than a decade from its start, the furry catkins that are the buds of the pussy willow (and so the name “pussies”) would be found no longer in the wet lowland off the road and in front of the 1800s Hudson River brick-built main hall.

The American Pussy willow, and the European variety both herald spring and are used in some religious services when palm cannot be grown. As a harbinger, the catkins, so soft to the touch, seem a transition between winter, when fur is needed to keep warm, and the bright then deep green foliage of spring into summer.

If you have the blessing of living in changing seasons, the willow buds warmly remind you of renewal. And since the plant is so easy to grow, hope is there as well for an easy and successful planting into harvest. At least the opportunity exists.

Pussy willows are still to be found in Rockland County, N.Y., just 20 or so miles up from the great gotham that is New York City, and probably in Viola, too, but not in front of RCC.

Progress thrives on growth and hustle and bustle, which can push aside natural, simple beauty, replacing it with expensive horticultural landscaping, maintained by squads of men carrying leaf blowers, weed-whackers and trimmers in chalk-on-blackboard-like cacophony.

The young college woman who could be gifted with furry catkins on willow stalks still exists as well, and perhaps such an un-fussy, modest present would still be welcome. But the search for the stalks is no longer easily satisfied.

Colleges aid progress, aid humankind, aid the individual and are a general blessing. Long – very long – before the college at Viola was there, even before the almshouse of life’s endings was replaced by a house of beginnings, the American pussy willow plant thrived in soil native to native Americans. And it was a thing of beauty, indeed.

IOLA, N.Y. – Almost 50 years ago, in a time that could be today if progress had not marched, the American Pussy Willow was predominant as a first sign of spring along College Road, then newly named from Viola Road for the small two-year school that began in 1959.

Rockland Community College would become one of the largest of its kind, taking land from old farms and former county almshouse property, as needed. In less than a decade from its start, the furry catkins that are the buds of the pussy willow (and so the name “pussies”) would be found no longer in the wet lowland off the road and in front of the 1800s Hudson River brick-built main hall.

The American Pussy willow, and the European variety both herald spring and are used in some religious services when palm cannot be grown. As a harbinger, the catkins, so soft to the touch, seem a transition between winter, when fur is needed to keep warm, and the bright then deep green foliage of spring into summer.

If you have the blessing of living in changing seasons, the willow buds warmly remind you of renewal. And since the plant is so easy to grow, hope is there as well for an easy and successful planting into harvest. At least the opportunity exists.

Pussy willows are still to be found in Rockland County, N.Y., just 20 or so miles up from the great gotham that is New York City, and probably in Viola, too, but not in front of RCC.

Progress thrives on growth and hustle and bustle, which can push aside natural, simple beauty, replacing it with expensive horticultural landscaping, maintained by squads of men carrying leaf blowers, weed-whackers and trimmers in chalk-on-blackboard-like cacophony.

The young college woman who could be gifted with furry catkins on willow stalks still exists as well, and perhaps such an un-fussy, modest present would still be welcome. But the search for the stalks is no longer easily satisfied.

Colleges aid progress, aid humankind, aid the individual and are a general blessing. Long – very long – before the college at Viola was there, even before the almshouse of life’s endings was replaced by a house of beginnings, the American pussy willow plant thrived in soil native to native Americans. And it was a thing of beauty, indeed.

Monday, March 1, 2010

SQUEEKY WHEEL GETS NO OIL

One way to save taxpayers money is to sentence non-violent criminal offenders to (1) community service and (2) to push shopping carts full of cement sacks and with one malfunctioning wheel around a home center for 35 minutes. An alternate venue can be the supermarket, the broken cart overfilled with heavy food items.

No unsuspecting consumer, though, should be forced to push these bad carts, which under the law of averages, ends up in my hands or yours about every fifth try. How do they get this way, with one lopsided wheel, or one squeaky wheel that has everyone looking at you and silently asking, “What is the matter with that guy? Can’t he pick the right cart?”

I have historical interest in the matter, since one of the earliest carts was cobbled together in the 1920s and used in the Packard-Bamberger department store in nearby Hackensack, N.J. Since it had four wheels, the potential then began for one of them to malfunction. Yet in defense of the original inventor, I’ll bet the machining  and the parts were superior and thus less prone to breaking down. Why modern wheels are not better made is baffling. The squeeky wheel is said to attract attention in society, to “get the oil.” Not on carts.

Today’s carts are a mix of plastic and stamped steel. Those in our local big-chain super-duper markets are huge, especially if you choose the ones with car seats for the kiddies or even small toy cars that the children sit in. That adds even more wheels to the  cart, now the SUV version. Trying to parallel-park that style next to the cookie aisle is formidable, with junior tipping it as he reaches for the Oreos.

The carts I encounter, bad wheel on the fifth try or not, won’t hold four bags of groceries in brown bags, as logic would tell you they should. You end up smushing the packaged bread, already made soft by the preservatives. Designers should have to test their designs in the market, and their wheels should break down.

How does one wheel get broken? Do senior citizens drag race with the carts? And bang into one another at the supermarket roller derby? Do parents load four kids at one end, putting too much weight on a wheel?

At the home center, the carts, also super huge, are not well-designed either. Small items fall through the holes (probably jamming the wheels). Try hauling four 8-foot pieces of lumber -- you need red flags at the end as a safety precaution.

Perhaps the wheels are busted when people take the carts to the streets, dropping them off at apartment houses and other stores (maybe that’s how some of them end up in creek beds in these parts). One of my newspaper predecessors suggested that the wayward cart problem could be solved by making them radio-controlled. At the push of a button, small motors would steer them back to the stores. He added that any senior or junior in need of a lift might hop in and get a free ride. 

But, of course, that might break a wheel.